Italy is one of those bucket list countries where you are spoiled for choice between art, culture, nature, history, and food. It seems like each city is a must-see and it is a near-impossible task to narrow down what to see and do.
The country’s landscapes change dramatically from the alpine regions bordering Austria in the north to romantic wine valleys in the central regions, and down to Mediterranean beach destinations in the south.
Wherever you go, sample all of the local cuisine. Italy has much more to offer than pizza and pasta (but those are pretty remarkable too). Trattorias are a must with their cured meats hanging from the ceilings and informal red and white table cloths.
Read below to narrow down some of the endless choices of things to do in Italy.
Eat Your Way Through Cinque Terre
In the north of Italy, you will find a string of 5 tiny villages connected only by hiking trail and train. These villages cling to the cliffs and are framed by crystal clear fishing docks where villagers set sail from. The houses in the villages are unmistakable with their vibrant colors and rows of windows overlooking the Mediterranean.
You can walk along scenic hiking trails between the villages or take the train if you are crunched for time. Each village has its own special attractions but you are guaranteed to feast wherever you go. Be sure to try all your Italian favorites from gelato to cured meats and bread but don’t miss out on the region’s specialty: pesto.
Walk Among the Gladiators At The Coliseum
The Coliseum might be one of the most recognizable sites from the Roman empire and is still the largest amphitheater in the world. It is nearly 2000 years old and for centuries it hosted epic and brutal gladiator battles for the entertainment of the Roman masses.
Today tourists can walk around the Coliseum or take a guided tour. When making a special reservation you are also able to go underneath the main arena to see where gladiators prepared for battle and where animals were kept before these gruesome fights. There is also a museum dedicated to the Greek god of love, Eros. It displays numerous artifacts excavated from the grounds as well as from around Italy. Outside of this mammoth structure is another triumphant monument, the Arch of Constantine.
Time Travel to Ancient Rome, Pompeii
Nearly 2000 years ago, in 79AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted without warning and the city of Pompeii was engulfed in volcanic ash. The ash-covered everyone and everything and has perfectly preserved the city for all this time.
Pompeii gives an interesting perspective of ancient life as it has conserved a scene from everyday life during Roman times. It is not the polished image of kings and queens that we see on display elsewhere, but rather a moment in time frozen forever.
You can see graffiti from that time on the walls and visit bakeries, bars, and brothels to see what life was like all those years ago. On the macabre side of things, you can also see the plaster casts of people who perished in the ash. Of those on display the couple embracing and the dog are some of the most somber.
Live in Luxury on the Amalfi Coast
The Amalfi Coast is a romantic stretch of pristine coastline along the Tyrrhenian Sea in the south of Italy. This part of the country is renowned for its ultra-luxurious hotels which make it one of Europe’s most lavish holiday destinations.
The blue waters are offset by the pastel-colored houses that hang on the cliffs of towns like Amalfi, Positano, and Cetara. All the cities on this coast are not on the mainland and you can quickly reach the exquisite island of Capri with a ferry trip. An excellent way to see this region is to take the train on the La Circumvesuviana Line from Naples to Sorrento. You will be taken on a scenic ride along the ocean and even pass Mt. Vesuvius on the way.
Drink Wine under the Tuscan Sun
Tuscany is one of the most magnificent wine regions in the world and its medieval hilltop towns are iconic. The cities are built from natural stones and their archetypal red terracotta roofs peek out from behind massive city walls.
San Gimignano is one of the most popular of these hilltop towns. Here you can climb one of its 14 towers (the Torre Grossa) to get an incredible view of the valleys below the town.
As always, remember to sample local dishes! In San Miniato, you can indulge in an astounding variety of decedent truffles and Radda you must savor their delicious wines.
Watch the Palio in Siena
Siena is one of the larger cities in Tuscany with many marvelous corners to explore. In the center of town, the Piazza del Campo is the starting point for most tours and here you can dine at a range of delicious street-side cafes. The Palazzo Pubblico is the most eye-catching part of the Piazza with its distinctly medieval crenellations. Twice a year you can be a spectator at Italy’s most famous horse race, the Palio. Riders race through the Piazza on bareback horses in a tradition that has been ongoing for centuries.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is the most magnificent cathedral in all of Tuscany. Is unmissable with its ornate marble exterior and inside it’s a world of its own. Don’t miss the Biblioteca Piccolomini at the cathedral to see one of the most detailed frescos in the region.
Ride in a Gondola in Venice
Venice needs little to no introduction as this romantic city is one of the most visited places in Italy, if not Europe. The city is formed out of a series of islands all connected by canals which are to be explored by traditional gondolas. On your gondola ride, you will pass famous monuments such as the Bridge of Sigh and the Ponte di Rialto which spans the Grand Canal.
Once you start exploring on foot you should head straight to St. Mark’s Square to admire the hundreds of roman archways that surround the square. Here you will also find St. Mark’s Basilica, a grand church on the square with astonishing art inside and out. For the lovers of the Renaissance, the Gallerie dell’Accademia is a must-see. The gallery displays priceless artworks from that period including Da Vinci’s renowned Vitruvian Man.
Indulge in Italy’s Best Pizza in Naples
In the south of Italy, Naples sits at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. The mighty mountain dominates every view from the city and its command is unwavering. Brave visitors can hike up the mountain to get up close to this destructive force.
Back in town, there are countless churches and ruins to explore. Near the Basilica dell’Incoronata, you can explore the San Gennaro Catacombs for a literal deep dive into history. The Naples National Archaeological Museum is also worth a visit as it has a selection from all over the world, including mummified remnants from Egypt.
Castel Nuovo is one of Naples’s historic castles, dating back to the 13th century. In the ocean, you will also find Castel dell Ovo, which was once an island. Both castles have interesting exhibits of art and artifacts relating to their distinct eras.
Be sure to try what is said to be the best pizza in Italy at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele!
Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to many greats like Machiavelli, Dante, and Galileo. The Florence Cathedral stands proudly above the red terracotta roofs and is illuminated by night to draw your attention to its grandeur. From afar the building looks prominent but up close one is taken aback by the extensive symmetrical designs decorating the exterior. The same goes for Giotto’s Campanile which towers beside it.
The Galleria dell’Accademia is one of the unmissable museums in Italy. You will see countless busts, sculptures, and paintings but none as awe-inspiring as Michelangelo’s David. There are countless churches and piazzas to explore on foot and just a stroll through the city is rewarding in itself.
After a long day of playing tourist, sink your teeth into a mouthwatering Bistecca Fiorentina (Florentine Beefsteak) Osteria di Giovanni accompanied by a glass of Tuscany red.
Lean Against the Tower of Pisa
If you don’t have a photo holding up the Leaning Tower, did you even visit Italy? The Leaning Tower of Pisa is quintessentially Italian and climbing the stairs to the top is non-negotiable.
The Tower is not a stand (albeit at an angle) alone attraction. The complex is called Piazza die Miracoli and includes 4 precious buildings. The square, also known as the field of miracles, is a UNESCO heritage site. Apart from the Tower, you will see the largest of the 4 buildings, the Cathedral of Pisa (Cattedrale di Pisa) and the accompanying Baptistery of San Giovanni.
The last of the holy buildings is the Camposanto Monumentale di Pisa or “monumental cemetery”. The ground it is built upon is said to have been brought in from Golgotha.
Get Up Close with Juliette In Verona
“Fair Verona” as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, is a dreamy city filled with winding alleyways and scores of roman architectural gems. Possibly none as remarkable as the Arena di Verona. Verona’s coliseum has been standing for thousands of years and is impeccably preserved.
The story of the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, is the epitome of romance and in Verona, you can visit Juliette’s Balcony. Even though the characters were fictitious, this balcony stands as a symbol of endearment, and many travel from far to pin love letters to these walls. A life-sized statue of Juliette also occupies the courtyard and she can be rubbed on her chest for luck.
The city has plenty of other splendid sites to marvel at including the Verona Cathedral, Torre dei Lamberti, and the Piazza Bra. The Giardino Giusti is one of the most beautiful renaissance gardens in the country featuring marble statues amongst painstakingly perfectly trimmed hedged gardens. The Roman arena also still presents regular operas and the scale of these productions is unbelievable.
See the “Birth of Venus” at Uffizi Gallery
Florence is the epicenter of relics from the Renaissance. The Uffizi Gallery is unmissable as it contains some of the most seminal pieces from this time. The gallery was established in the 1500s and here you will be in the company of all the greats; Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Firenze to name a few.
“The Birth of Venus” is the gallery’s pièce de résistance along with Raphael’s “Portrait of a Man”. The gallery has more than 40 halls with exhibits including paintings, sculptures, sketches, and books.
It is not only the inside of the building that is attractive. The Loggiato in the courtyard connects the 2 long gallery wings of the Uffizi. This courtyard is an extension of the artwork found inside and features almost 30 sculptures of prominent Tuscans.
Strut Your Stuff in Milan
Milan is not only the fashion capital of the world but also one of Italy’s finest cities to explore history, culture, and cuisine. But speaking of fashion, why don’t you take a walk through Grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the world’s oldest shopping malls. It’s over the top stucco artworks and the grand glass roof surrounds high fashion names such as Prada and Louis Vuitton.
Keeping with the theme of grandeur and opulence, the Milan Cathedral is one of the most sublime gothic churches in the world. The exterior of the church is intricate and elaborate and the building is prominent across the wide-open space of Piazza del Duomo. The Church of Santa Maria Delle Grazie might not be as striking as the former, but inside you will find the greatest treasure of all. “The Last Supper” is one of the world’s most celebrated works of art and is painted on the wall of this redbrick church.
Meet the Pope in the Vatican
The Vatican is one of the holiest places on earth but you need not be devout to appreciate the valor of this city-state. The art and architecture in this city are unrivaled. It is here where you will be able to marvel at St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel which are both testaments to the triumphs of human creativity and ingenuity.
The Pope is the central figure of the city and the main reason for many to visit the Vatican. On Wednesdays, you can attend the Papal Audience where the Pope delivers an address to thousands of members of the public. Tickets to this momentous event are free but booking is essential. On Sundays, he also delivers a shorter address from the balcony of St Peter’s.
The Vatican Museums are a must but the Vatican Gardens and the Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis underneath should also be on your to-do list.
Take to the Slopes
Italy is often associated with sunny summer days sipping on wine or appreciating art, but in the winter the Italian Alps and the Dolomites are transformed into winter wonderlands with exceptional slopes.
There are 12 world-class ski resorts in the Dolomites with slopes for all levels of skill. Even if skiing is not your forte, there are still amazing hikes in the region that will offer you breath-taking views of the snowy landscapes. The three peaks of Tre Cime Di Lavaredo are icons of the region and can be easily reached with a 10km circular hike. You can also take trips to magnificent lakes or take drives through the winding mountain passes.